Putting an End to Arsenic in Our Food Supply

By Patty Lovera Assistant Director of Food & Water Watch

Posted on | By Patty Lovera

There’s no doubt that The Dr. Oz Show investigation into arsenic levels in apple juice shocked a lot of people, especially parents who consider apple juice to be a nutritious staple in their kids’ diets. It is unacceptable that a toxic chemical like arsenic is allowed to contaminate our food and drink, and we all need to demand higher standards of protection for our families. 

So, how did arsenic get into apple juice? Arsenic is an odorless, tasteless chemical that has long been used as a pesticide, herbicide, wood preserver, and for chemical warfare. It’s also a known human carcinogen, and chronic exposure is associated with an increased risk for several kinds of cancer, including bladder, kidney, lung, liver and colon. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and neurological problems in children have also been linked to chronic arsenic exposure.

One way for arsenic to make it into apple juice is through the use of arsenic-based pesticides in orchards, another is if water added to juice concentrate contains the chemical. Several years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the allowable level of arsenic in drinking water because of concerns about health risks.

But when it comes to juice, we also need to think about where it comes from. Most people don’t realize that two-thirds of the apple juice that Americans consume – more than 400 million gallons annually – come from juice concentrate shipped from China. A recent report by Food & Water Watch revealed that many other foods and drinks that children consume on a daily basis, including canned and frozen fruit, candy and vitamins, are coming from China with little or no food safety oversight. 

China is sending a lot of food to American dinner tables: The country’s food exports to the US have tripled over the past decade to nearly 4 billion pounds of food in 2010. Unfortunately, China has a terrible track record on food safety.

The US Food and Drug Administration prevented over 9000 unsafe products from entering the country between 2006 and 2010, but with a less than 2% inspection rate on imported food, countless other unsafe products undoubtedly entered the US food system. Even Chinese officials have publically acknowledged their inability to regulate the country’s sprawling food production sector.

As potentially unsafe food is increasingly being imported into our country, unfortunately, arsenic is also entering the food supply right here at home. For the last 60 years, chickens have been given feed containing arsenic, at first to control disease but later to promoter faster growth and to make the chickens’ meat more pink. The arsenic fed to chickens ends up in the billions of pounds of poultry waste produced and spread across fields as fertilizer each year, which can contaminate soil and water, and some can stay behind in the chickens themselves. US Department of Agriculture data suggests the typical American is eating between 2.13 and 8.07 micrograms of total arsenic per day through consumption of chicken meat. The problem is so serious that earlier this year, the Food & Drug Administration pressured the drug company that makes the major arsenic-based feed additive to pull it from the market.

We all need to get involved to reduce unnecessary exposure to chemicals like arsenic in our food. There are a few things you can do to protect your family and make the food supply safer for everyone.

Read Labels – Know what’s in the food you’re buying and where it came from. Try to purchase food grown and processed in the US. Check out Food & Water Watch’s interactive tool The Global Grocer that tells you which fruits and vegetables are imported most and from where.

Go Organic – The US Department of Agriculture’s organic certification program requires that all certified organic food be produced under strict standards for how the food is grown, handled and processed. The organic standards do not allow the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, or feeding arsenic to chickens

Get Educated – In January 2011, President Obama signed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act into law. This legislation is the first major overhaul of the FDA’s food safety responsibilities since 1938. But it is in danger of not being funded appropriately by Congress. To learn more about the law, click here.

Get Involved – Tell your lawmakers at home and in Washington to make public health and safety a priority by strengthening food safety programs and enforcing them. You can take action on the Food & Water Watch website.

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